Viewpoint -- Hail, Columbia

Reflections on the loss of the crew of the space shuttle.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard. I was driving to pick up some photographic prints from a processor in Washington, D.C. To pick up some prints of color slides of new snow amongst the leafless trees taken in western Maryland in the days just before New Year's. Prints, as I look at them now, that in their light and shadow reflect a simple and stark beauty and hide from the eye the wondrous natural complexity that is a tree or a snowflake. The crew of Columbia had spent 16 days in space, among the simple and stark beauty of the stars, exploring the complexity of how people and things function far above the surface of Earth. Although in space they were less than the distance from Washington, D.C., to New York City away, they were on the frontier. They were on the frontier of discovery and of human understanding. "A Longing to Explore the Stars" read the Washington Post's headline on its profile of Columbia commander Rick Douglas Husband. "Scientist and Pilot Followed a Straight Path to Stars" read the Post's headline on its profile of Michael P. Anderson, Columbia's payload commander. They and their five colleagues were living the words that Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote more than 150 years ago about the mythic explorer Ulysses' desire "To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,/beyond the utmost bound of human thought." I have had the privilege of standing at the place on Earth where Alan Shepherd and John Glenn left on their pioneering trips into space. I have stood on Pad 39B at Cape Canaveral, the place on Earth where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins left for humankind's first landing on the moon. I have sped supersonically across the Atlantic Ocean more than 10 miles above the earth at the place where the pastel blue of the atmosphere starts the transition to the blue-blackness of space. Each has been an inspiring experience. Each has changed the ways I look at Earth and at space. And each seems so insignificant compared with what the crew of the Columbia was doing. Humankind has been going into space for more than four decades now. And simply the passage of that amount of time is enough to make the journeys seem routine. But it is the presence of people that has made each space flight different from each of the ones that went before. It is the presence of people that will make a difference on each future flight. The continuing momentum behind manned space flight, wrote Washington Post Staff Writer Rick Weiss in last Sunday's paper, "reflects a sensibility, albeit somewhat amorphous, among many that space is a frontier no less worthy of exploration than was the New World or the Wild West. Implicit in that sensibility, some said, is the dream that space may be the place where humanity might at last 'get it right.'" In space humankind has already remarkably advanced biology, botany, biotechnology, materials science and medicine. But the dream of 'getting it right' goes beyond these achievements and rightly so. Weiss quoted Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, as saying, "All our highest aspirations can come together in space." The late Carl Sagan wrote in his 1980 book "Cosmos" that "in the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is a prerequisite to survival." The loss of the Columbia crew reminds us that advancing the frontiers of knowledge and understanding in space is not routine and that wonder does not come without risk. The lives of the Columbia crew, however, are testament to the dream of 'getting it right' in space. In memory of Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool and Ilan Ramon. Peace. Shalom. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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